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Previewing the Chicago Elite Classic

A look at this weekend’s major high school basketball shootout.

St. Rita’s James Brown (13) moves into position to rebound at the same time as Denmark-Olar’s K’Vontae Davis (24), Washington, Illinois, November 24, 2021.
St. Rita’s James Brown (13) moves into position to rebound at the same time as Denmark-Olar’s K’Vontae Davis (24), Washington, Illinois, November 24, 2021.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

After the 2019-20 season came to a screeching halt and the 2020-21 season was an abbreviated one with no high-profile shootouts or even a state tournament, the return of the Chicago Elite Classic this weekend is an early-season reminder that high school basketball is getting back to normal.

This annual event, which was canceled a year ago, brings together many of the top girls and boys teams in the Chicago area and welcomes several national programs with big basketball reputations.

Oak Park coach Phil Gary is excited for a number of reasons. He played in the Oak Park-Fenwick rivalry as a high school player at Oak Park and remembers standing-room only crowds. When these two rivals meet again Friday night, Gary is pleased that so many more fans will be able to take in the game as it’s played in a college arena.

Plus, he believes playing in the setting the Chicago Elite Classic creates at UIC’s Credit Union 1 Arena is another step in getting his players back to basketball normalcy.

“It’s going to be great to be in that atmosphere,” said Gary. “More fans are able to see the game now. It’s a nice rivalry that I played in but one where Fenwick has been kicking our butts of late. We want to restore a little of that competitiveness into this rivalry and get a win.”

While Simeon and Young are fixtures in high-profile events and, in particular, the Chicago Elite Classic as coach Robert Smith and Tyrone Slaughter jointly run the event, this is a big opportunity for others. It’s one St. Ignatius coach Matt Monroe jumped at when his team was invited.

“We played in the Chicago Elite Classic three years ago and our kids loved it,” said Monroe. “We had a great time in what is one of the elite events in the entire country that is run extremely well. When we had an opportunity to go back we jumped at the chance. It’s a big stage for our kids and a great chance to test ourselves. We are pumped up to be playing in it.”

Chicago Elite Classic Lineup

Friday, Dec. 3

Butler vs. Phillips (girls), 4:30

Oak Park vs. Fenwick, 6

The Chicago Elite Classic has been a showcase for this fun, intense rivalry with a local flare as both schools are just eight miles from UIC.

Although many of the games have been down-to-the-wire finishes, Fenwick has dominated the series in recent years. While Fenwick’s six-game win streak over Oak Park was snapped in a 2017 Chicago Elite Classic thriller, Fenwick won 66-65 in overtime in 2018 and 58-48 in 2019.

New to this rivalry matchup are the coaches. Both Oak Park’s Phil Gary, who took over the program last season, and first-year Fenwick coach Tony Young will get their first taste of playing each other in this event.

Fenwick is led by a returning pair of seniors: point guard Denium Juette and 6-4 wing Gabe Madej. A couple of other seniors, 6-5 Max Reese and 5-11 guard TJ Stepehenson, are battle-tested. The Friars hope a strong group of young players can rise to the occasion.

The 1-2 punch of Denver recruit Justin Mullins, a 6-5 wing who has blossomed over the past year, and emerging 6-5 Sam Lewis, a talented and athletic junior, give Oak Park the edge.

Homewood-Flossmoor vs. Young (girls), 7:30

Taft vs. Lane, 9

This event pairs two North Side programs who are provided a big platform. Taft finished 11-2 a year ago and won the Public League’s White-North. Lane Tech has continued to grow its program under coach Nick LoGalbo. Part of that growth has been aided by the production of 6-2 senior Sean Malloy as he starts his third varsity season. Senior point guard Ethan Grunebaum is another key returning player from a year ago.

Saturday, Dec. 4

Simeon vs. St. Louis Vashon (girls), 10:30 a.m.

Kenwood vs. Joliet West (girls), noon

St. Ignatius vs. St. Louis Chaminade, 1:30

Highly-regarded St. Ignatius was tripped up by Lake Forest and Loyola in two Thanksgiving Tournament barn burners last week. But this talented team has one of the best foundations of any team with the trio of senior AJ Redd, junior Richard Barron and senior Kolby Gilles. In the loss to Lake Forest, Barron, a 6-4 physical guard with a torch from the three-point line, hit seven threes and scored 32 points.

Chaminade has been a Missouri power, advancing to the state semifinals last year for the sixth time in seven seasons. The Red Devils finished third in the state in Missouri’s Class 6 a year ago but was raided by Link Year Prep, which nabbed two high-profile transfers in Tarris Reed, Jr., last year’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch Player of the Year who has signed with Michigan, and Damien Mayo, Jr.

But this is still a basketball power and it returns twin senior guards Nate Straughter, a weapon from the three-point line, and Walt Straughter. Junior guards BJ Ward and Nilavan Daniels also bring back experience from a year ago.

North Lawndale vs. St. Louis Vashon, 3:00

Is North Lawndale ready for the bright lights of the Chicago Elite Classic and to remove itself from the shadow of other city basketball heavyweights? This is a big opportunity for coach Carlos Tolliver and his program. The catalyst for the Phoenix remains the junior backcourt of Ronald Chambers and Damarion Wyatt.

Vashon won Missouri state championships in 2019 and 2021. While coach Tony Irons may not have a high-profile name in the program right now, it fully expects to continue its winning ways. Seniors guards Ramirez Taylor and Arlandus Harris are back, along with junior guard Kennard Davis, who is the team’s top returning scorer from last season. Jayden Nicholson, a 6-4 junior transfer, is a big addition.

St. Rita vs. Thornton, 4:30

An ultra-intriguing matchup featuring two teams with players so many fans are anxious to see play, especially Illinois Fighting Illini fans.

The arrival of Ty Rodgers, a move-in from Michigan who has signed with Illinois, has rejuvenated the hopes of Thornton and excited the basketball fanbase in this state. The athletic, hard-nosed Rodgers is physically gifted and gets his first chance of playing on a big stage in Illinois.

The ballyhooed sophomore group at St. Rita is hyped and ready. This program and these talented young players are both looking to take a major step forward this season. That could start right here.

Everything about 6-9 James Brown and 6-8 Morez Johnson, an Illinois commit, screams high-major prospect as sophomores. Junior Kaiden Space and sophomore Jaedin Reyna are Division I prospects, while freshman Melvin Bell is one of the most promising young players in the state.

Kenwood vs. Evangel Christian (NY), 6

Yes, JJ Taylor, who was the state’s top-ranked junior prospect, has left Kenwood. But coach Mike Irvin’s team is loaded with talent, starting with senior guard Trey Pettigrew and the junior combo of dynamic scoring guard Darrin “Dai Dai” Ames and budding 6-7 Davius Loury. Plus, 6-5 freshman Bryce Heard is arguably the best freshman in the state.

Cyr Malonga, a 6-11 center and high-major talent in the junior class, and talented sophomore guard Carmelo Mercer leads Evangel Christian. Christian Spalding is a 6-3 senior point guard and has low-major Division I and Division II interest and offers.

Simeon vs. Mater Dei (CA), 7:30

A couple of legendary coaches in their respective states bring their powerhouse programs together in one of the marquee games.

Coach Robert Smith’s team will rely heavily on the perimeter play of seniors Jaylen Drane and Avyion Morris and junior Jalen Griffin. How quickly 6-8 transfers Miles and Wesley Rubin get acclimated will go a long way in Simeon’s development over the course of this season.

Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight is now in his 40th season. He’s won more than 1,100 games, 11 CIF state championships and his powerhouse program has another loaded team.

Mater Dei is led by Zack Davidson, a skilled 6-8 junior 4-man who has led the Monarchs in scoring thus far, 6-6 senior guard Kaden Minter and senior point guard Mason Ressler. Keep an eye on some of the emerging freshmen in the program: 6-2 freshman Owen Verna and 6-10, 240-pound Tee Bartlett.

Young vs. Gonzaga (DC), 9

There will be a surplus of Division I talent on display in the finale of the Chicago Elite Classic as two programs with national reputations collide.

Young and coach Tyrone Slaughter will lean heavily on their two talented big men: AJ Casey, a versatile 6-8 forward headed to Miami-Florida, and Northern Illinois recruit Xavier Amos. The emergence of two juniors –– point guard Dalen Davis and 6-5 Daniel Johnson –– and the arrival of freshman Antonio Munoz makes the Dolphins dangerous on the perimeter.

Gonzaga coach Stephen Turner brings one of the high school basketball giants to Chicago. As always, Gonzaga’s roster is filled with Division I talent. Senior point guard Devin Dinkins is headed to George Mason while a pair of 6-6 wings, Quinn Clark and Jared Turner, have multiple Division I offers.

The young, up-and-coming players in the program, including sophomore point guard Justin Gilmore and freshman guard Nyk Lewis, are already Division I prospects.